Author Interview - Emily Bitto, author of "The Strays"

The Strays by Emily Bitto is an exciting new book set in 1930s Australia that has just hit our shelves.  We are very excited that the author, Emily Bitto agreed to answer some questions for us.  Here is what she had to say.

PP:  Tell us a little about your novel The Strays.

EB:  The Strays is set in the avant-garde art world of Melbourne in the 1930s.  It tells the story of a group of artists who attempt to create a sort of utopian community as a way of escaping the conservatism of both the art world and Australian culture in general at the time.  But it's told through the eyes of an observer, a young girl, Lily, (now looking back as an older woman) who is befriended by one of the artists' children.  So it's also the story of her friendship with Eva, the daughter of one of the artists, and of Lily's desire to be part of this exotic world.

PP:  What inspired you to tell this story?

EB:  I've always been very interested in the idea of groups of people who try to separate themselves off, in various ways and for various reasons, from mainstream culture.  And I've also always been interested in art.  My aunt and uncle are artists, though obviously they didn't live through this era.  But I'm fascinated by the figure of the artist as someone almost inevitably on the fringes of society, and particularly by the era of Modernism in Australia, when there was this incredible mixture of genuine newness and innovation in art and at the same time real conservatism in our culture.  There were consequences for going against the grain, both personal and legal, that artists today (in Australia at least) just don't have to face.  On a narrative level, I wanted to write an "outsider" novel - one that viewed this world from the perspective of a narrator who is in turn on the periphery of this peripheral group.  And it's also, at heart, about female friendship, which I think is sadly neglected in literature in general.
"I decided quite early on that what happened in that circle was actually almost too dramatic for fiction - it would have read like melodrama."

PP:  How closely are the characters based on those artists who created and lived at Heide?

EB:  The characters themselves are not at all based on the specific artists who lived and worked at Heide.  If you read the book looking for the "Sidney Nolan" character or the "Sunday Reed" character, you won't find them.  But I was definitely inspired by the stories of the Heide circle, and there are some little details from their stories that have made it in to the novel.  I did read a lot about those artists, but I decided quite early on that what happened in that circle was actually almost too dramatic for fiction - it would have read like melodrama.  So I've created my own entirely fictional artist colony, but placed it within the context of Melbourne as it was at the time - although even then I have not written a strictly historically accurate novel.  It's fiction, ultimately.

PP:  I think your novel challenges the ideas of "family", "community" and "domesticity", particularly in regard to the conservatism of the times in which the novel is set (1930s).  Do you agree?

EB:  Yes, I'm happy you read it in that way, because I was definitely trying to explore those ideas and the way in which these kinds of artistic communities of the time implicitly challenged conservative mainstream ideas of family and community.  But at the same time, I suppose I wanted to highlight the fact that there is a really deep-seated gender inequality when it comes to ideas of artistic merit, genius etc.  So although I think that many of the dominant views about culture and censorship and freedom of expression were being challenged by the avante-garde artists of the time, in most cases it was only the men who got to occupy that position of the radical, anti-establishment, genius artist, while the women had to play the supporting role.  And I think there are still elements of that in the way the trope of the "genius artist" is represented today.  I wanted to situate the artist within the context of the family, which is often, like female friendship, a neglected topic.  Of course, I hope I have created an engaging novel in the process, not a polemic, which it might seem like from reading this.

"...some of what Lily feels is drawn from my own experience..."

PP:  Many of the relationships in the book, including Lily's relationship with the Trentham's daughters are bridled with envy which ultimately leads to quite damaging consequences.  It almost felt like envy was another character undoing everyone's good intentions and feeding on their insecurities.  Was that an intentional theme of the novel?  What other themes did you want to explore?

EB:  Yes, I'm really interested in the idea of envy.  One of the strands of the novel that was there from the start was the relationship between an only child and a child with siblings.  I essentially grew up an only child.  Although I have a half-brother and half-sister I'm very close to, I didn't grow up with them.  So some of what Lily feels is drawn from my own experience: the longing to be part of a big, rowdy family and to feel like you'll never ultimately be alone.  You're right - I think many of the choices that the characters make in the novel are based on envy of another character and desire to either have what they have or deprive them of whatever it is.  And I suppose there's also the related theme of the desire to be "remarkable" or "unconventional" that I see as being at the centre of the novel.

"Hopefully if what you're writing is good enough you will make it past the slush pile anyway, but I fear that's not always the case."

PP:  You were shortlisted for the Victorian Premier's Literary Award for an Unpublished Manuscript for your manuscript of The Strays.  How important do you believe these types of awards are for unpublished authors?

EB:  I think they are really valuable, as a way of getting your name out there and getting your work read.  Because there are so many people writing that just getting an agent or a publisher to read your work is a difficult thing these days.  These awards give you a "way in" to approaching publishers and agents, and I suppose they probably frame the way those people then read your work.  Hopefully if what you're writing is good enough you will make it past the slush pile anyway, but I fear that's not always the case.  Of course, looking at it from another direction, these kinds of awards potentially have the power to influence the direction of what's published too - to draw attention to work that is maybe risky of goes against publishing trends.  So I think they're really important in that way too.

PP:  This is your first novel.  Can you tell us about the experience of having your book

EB:  It's been a long road, but an incredible one.  The novel initially started out as one half of a PhD project at the University of Melbourne.  It took me 3 and a half years to finish the PhD (the novel  had to be shelved for a while during that time so that I could finish the research component of the thesis, which I'd been neglecting), and then I was fortunate enough for the manuscript to be picked up by Affirm Press, and then I went into another round of revisions and editing.  I got to work with Aviva Tuffield as my editor, which was an absolute privilege, so the editing process was a great experience, but I did feel like I'd been working on the book for a long time already by that point.  As I answer these questions, it's still about a week until the book is in store, so I think that's when it will really hit me that it's published.  I'm pretty excited for that!

PP:  Is it too soon to ask if you are working on another project?

EB:  I've got lots of ideas, but I haven't started the next novel yet.  Because I was still working on The Strays until quite recently, I didn't let myself start anything else, even though I was really itching to get going on something new.  I felt like I needed to keep my head in this book, and in these characters, to do the best job I could of editing it.  But now I can start something, and it's just a matter of deciding which project to work on.  I can be very indecisive, and I need to settle definitively on one before I start, otherwise I'll just flit around between different ideas and won't get anything finished.  It's amazing how appealing that other idea can suddenly seem when you're stuck at a certain point in writing.  I don't want to give myself that out.  But I'm very excited to start the next book once I've made the decision.